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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

June 11: Recall Fever in California Not Just About Gavin Newsom

There’s been a lot of coverage of the effort to recall Gavin Newsom, but not much analysis of other recall drives in the state, and why they are so numerous. I tried to remedy that at New York:

Like a slow-motion riot, the effort to force California governor Gavin Newsom into a special recall election has dominated political headlines in the Golden State for months. Facilitated by a conservative judge’s decision to give petition-gatherers a 120-day extension in the time allowed to reach the required 1,495,709 signatures needed to trigger a recall, the recall drive succeeded, though the date of the special election (probably in November) will be determined after a few more legal requirements in the process have been satisfied.

But as the Los Angeles Times reports, Newsom is hardly the only target of 2021 recall drives in California:

“During the first five months of 2021, active recall efforts — those in which an official step has been taken — have targeted at least 68 local officials in California, according to a Times analysis. The total has already surpassed the number of local recall attempts seen during four of the last five years in California.”

Most of the targets are Democrats, and COVID-19 restrictions are the most important motivator — however, this recall fever has struck both big cities and rural counties, and a wide range of discontents are at play. Of course, these factors are not unique to California. Here’s why recalls have become so popular in this particular state.

Recalling elected officials in California is relatively easy

Nineteen states provide for the recall of state elected officials, alongside 30 states that allow local jurisdictions to provide for their own recall elections. Rules vary widely, but California is distinctive in that it (a) does not require any particular rationale for demanding a recall, and (b) has among the lowest thresholds for triggering recall elections. The Newsom recall, for example, needed validated signatures from 12 percent of the number of voters in the last election for the office in question. In Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Dakota, Washington, and Wisconsin, the threshold is 25 percent of voters in the last election. Some states link the threshold to the percentage of registered voters (e.g., Montana, which requires signatures of 10 percent of the number of registered voters in the last election for the office).

The thresholds for recall of local elected officials vary in California according to the size of the jurisdiction, but they are quite low (10 percent of registered voters) for the larger cities and counties, and some are provided for in local government charters that are not subject to state law.

Legal requirements aside, there is a political culture in California encouraging recall drives that assumed a whole new prominence after the successful effort to remove Governor Gray Davis from office in 2003. At any given movement, there are recall petitions circulating aimed at a large number of elected officials, even though most never succeed.

The backlash against COVID-19 restrictions in California was especially intense and not limited to conservatives

For various reasons, including often-clumsy state management of public-health policies and confusing local rules, the backlash against pandemic-related restrictions in California seems to have been unusually intense. One prominent recall target, Ventura County supervisor Linda Parks, has galvanized a lot of local frustrations, notes the Times:

“’People were sitting at home and feeling impotent,’ said longtime Thousand Oaks resident and retired high school receptionist Karen Meyer. Meyer now often spends weekends at a small folding table in the parking lot of a local Target or DMV, asking passersby if they’d like to sign petitions to recall Parks in Ventura County.

“The recall organizer faulted her county supervisor for hewing too closely to Newsom’s pandemic directives and not doing enough to save local businesses.”

Recall fever in California may have also been specifically fueled by Newsom’s terrible mistake in attending a maskless indoor party for a prominent donor and lobbyist at one of the state’s most exclusive restaurants (the Napa Valley’s French Laundry). This contributed to perceptions that elected officials administering pandemic restrictions were hypocrites who were cavalier about damaging the livelihoods of barbers and hairdressers and small businesses, and the freedom to worship of churchgoers — complaints not limited to members of any party or ideology. And the particularly strong and ideologically diffuse anti-vaxxer movement in California likely strengthened the backlash against the entire anti-COVID-19 effort.

But as in other parts of the country, anger at school boards for lengthy shutdowns of in-person instruction transcended party and ideological groupings, with the California teachers unions getting blamed for particularly inflexible state and local rules. The likely successful effort to force recall elections for three members of the local school board in ultraliberal San Francisco cannot be explained as a Republican or conservative gambit; even progressive voters and elected officials objected to the board’s focus on renaming schools to get rid of marginally objective names rather than reopening them when possible.

California’s GOP sees recalls as its best shot at fighting an overwhelming Democratic advantage

While all the recalls cannot be dismissed (as many Democrats have tried to do) as GOP or right-wing stunts, there is no question that California’s very weak Republican Party has relied on this type of ballot “protest” more than its counterparts in states that aren’t as dark blue. Republicans haven’t won a statewide election in California since 2006. Democrats hold and show no signs of losing supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature. And traditional Republican strongholds like Orange County are now intense battlegrounds (won by Democrats in 2018, and partially won back by Republicans in 2020, in very close elections).

How ballot-based issue protests and recalls work together for California Republicans was illustrated by the successful 2018 recall aimed at Orange County Democratic state senator Josh Newman for voting in favor of the same gas tax increase that Republicans were trying to repeal via a statewide ballot initiative. The recall succeeded while the initiative failed, and Newman won the seat back in 2020. But linking the pol to the grievance was probably a good idea.

Republicans in California are currently dramatizing their law-and-order messages by attacking allegedly weak-on-crime elected officials. In California, two particular objects of conservative ire, San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin and Los Angeles district attorney George Gascon, are facing recall efforts. How else can Republicans spend their time in such overwhelmingly pro-Democratic jurisdictions?

In the suburban San Diego city of Carlsbad, an even more basic partisan and ideological fight is under way as right-wing talk-radio personality Carl DeMaio (who is also active in the Newsom recall effort) is leading a recall drive aimed at city councilwoman Cori Schumacher, a former professional surfing celebrity being targeted for a variety of ideological sins. She is also the object of ire for a particularly unhappy and influential group of restaurant owners. This particular campaign shows how COVID-19 grievances are merging with other, and sometimes unrelated, complaints to fuel a pretty clearly conservative purge effort aimed at a Democratic elected official in contested turf.

But will any of these recall efforts succeed?

Probably some will, though the big one, against Newsom, is likely to fail so long as public-health and economic conditions continue to improve and Democrats stay united in supporting him. Some Republican recall backers may yet regret putting so many eggs in the recall basket, and some voters angry about lockdowns and school closings may get over it. But in California, a recall drive is never more than a shout away.

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